By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 4, 2007
SAN ANTONIO -- Bob Lichtenfels paced behind the end zone in the Alamodome, a wad of fine-cut chewing tobacco tucked in his lower lip. Five hundred high school football players auditioned on the field in front of him, and Lichtenfels hoped to assess many of them during the next two hours. He pulled a six-page roster from his back pocket. "Time to go to work," he said.
In his three-year career as a professional evaluator of football talent, Lichtenfels, 34, has learned to make judgments quickly. On average, he believes he can project a player's future in about 30 seconds. Sometimes less. As he watched 16- and 17-year-olds perform a series of basic football drills at the U.S. Army National Combine last month, Lichtenfels marked on his roster in shorthand. Player No. 437 had a stiff neck. No. 565 took timid first steps. No. 269 ran like a future first-round pick in the NFL draft.
Players had traveled from 41 states and three continents for a chance to impress the new kingmakers of football recruiting: Lichtenfels, previously a Pennsylvania steelworker; Jamie Newberg, a former television producer; Tom Lemming, a onetime letter carrier; Greg Powers, co-owner of a pizza shop in Jinx, Okla.; and three dozen other recruiting analysts who work for companies such as Rivals, Scout, ESPN and CSTV.
In the past five years, the recruiting analysts who roamed the Alamodome had benefited from a dramatic power shift. The NCAA instituted new rules to further limit contact between coaches and prospective players, increasing the need for a third-party conduit. Recruiting Web sites turned into a major business, making analysts' information easily accessible. In San Antonio, that shift had turned a group of self-taught experts into semi-celebrities, their endorsements sought by parents, players and coaches. "Everybody knows who I am," Lichtenfels said. "I'm going to have to start putting a mask over my head."
Even while wearing a blue Scout.com hat and matching T-shirt, Lichtenfels felt slightly uncomfortable with the idea that his opinions could, in small part, set players on the path toward Division I notoriety or Division III obscurity in an annual process that this year begins Wednesday, the first day high school seniors can make their NCAA football commitments official. He came to Scout in 2003 with credentials as a lifelong football fan and a nine-year assistant high school coach. Now, three years later, his evaluations are a key cog in the recruiting process. He works 12 months each year, talking incessantly on his cellphone and making 50 to 75 overnight trips so he can rank thousands of high school players and break news stories about their college decisions.
Lichtenfels is in charge of ranking the top 100 players for several states, based on his evaluations of game films and live practices. He rates thousands of prospects on a scale of 1 to 5 stars. Three to four times each year, Lichtenfels meets with three other Scout analysts and revises a national list of the top 100 players.
Scout sent 43 analysts and publishers to the event in San Antonio, cementing its position as a recruiting industry juggernaut. Since its launch in 2001, the Scout company has grown to own 50 magazines and 300 sports Web sites because, a company executive said, "recruiting is like crack, and people can't get enough of it." Scout was purchased by Fox in 2005, and it has almost 250,000 subscribers who pay about $10 each month. Its network includes sites for every professional and college sports team, many of which depend on recruiting news.
Lichtenfels stumbled into a job with Scout in 2003, after the company noticed his frequent recruiting contributions to Internet message boards. He quickly rose to a prominent position, covering football recruiting in the East and Midwest. His peers at Scout, some of them former computer technicians or journalists, joke that Lichtenfels files stories with poor grammar and ill-constructed sentences. But he remains, they said, one of the company's premier football experts.
Lichtenfels considers himself more of a football fan or a coach than a removed journalist and analyst. A former high school offensive lineman who played one season of small college football, he has a large tattoo on his right leg and he walks with the stiffness of a professional weightlifter. He usually wears XXL T-shirts and shorts because, he says, nobody who comes from Robinson, Pa., ever wears a suit. When possible, Lichtenfels likes to participate in drills with the players he evaluates. After he completed a revealing interview with a prospect in the San Antonio media room, he hurled his massive chest at Greg Powers, a fellow Scout analyst, for a celebratory chest bump. Powers, fearing injury, ran the other way.
"You gotta calm down, big boy," Powers said.
"What, man?" Lichtenfels said. "Can't a guy get a little excited?"
In the past three years, Lichtenfels has gone from a Pennsylvania steelworker on the midnight shift to an often-quoted football expert with a regular spot on a Pittsburgh television show. He started at Scout for $1,000 a month, then earned a big enough raise to begin building his $170,000 dream home. He tells friends that he hopes to become a national recruiting analyst in the next few years, which would increase both his paycheck and his budding fame. Lichtenfels's wife, Shannon, sometimes jokes about her husband's growing ego. "Your head's big because you're fat, Bob," Shannon says, "not because you're famous."
During registration for the event in San Antonio, players lined up to meet Lichtenfels. He interviewed about 90 players and took a head shot of each one, so he could update their Scout profile. Late in the afternoon, Lichtenfels introduced himself to a Dunbar High School junior named Reggie Ellis.
"You gotta make me big time," Ellis said.
"Oh yeah?" Lichtenfels said. "Why?"
"Y'all are gonna make me or break me," Ellis said. "I need five stars."
"I can't just give those away," Lichtenfels said. "They mean something."
College coaches admit they closely monitor Web sites like Scout.com and Rivals.com for recruiting information, because they hardly have a choice. Because recruiting analysts are immune to NCAA contact rules, they often know more about high school players than the college coaches who recruit them. "I can't necessarily call a kid and ask how he feels about playing for us," said Illinois offensive coordinator Mike Locksley. "But I can look on the Internet and probably find out what I wanted anyway."
To provide that body of information, Lichtenfels obsesses over his evaluations and news stories. When introducing himself, Lichtenfels sometimes jokes that he works for Scout -- and tries to piece together a life on the side.
A few days after he returned to Robinson from San Antonio, Lichtenfels woke up at 10:30 a.m., dressed in windbreaker pants and a San Diego Chargers T-shirt. He walked down a creaky flight of wooden stairs and stopped in the kitchen to grab a Red Bull energy drink and a can of chewing tobacco. He passed through the living room, hugged his two young sons and entered the home office he refers to as "the cockpit."
When Lichtenfels started full time at Scout, he remodeled his enclosed porch into a cramped work space. The room is about 12 feet wide and four feet deep. A dusty treadmill takes up almost half of that space. Thousands of DVDs featuring highlights of high school players spill out of two moving boxes and three, 35-galloon blue jugs. Cracked cases and loose DVDs cover sections of the carpeted floor, confining Lichtenfels to a small chair wedged between a computer and a 12-inch Sharp television. He usually sits there for about 14 hours each day.
Lichtenfels likes to start work in the late morning and continue until a few hours before sunrise, a habit he developed at the steel mill. He divides his long days into phases, a mental trick to make his work more manageable. Three hours calling high school coaches for tips and information. Three hours calling high school players. Four hours watching and analyzing highlight videos. Two hours to monitor breaking news on Internet message boards. Two hours to write a handful of daily stories for Scout's Web sites.
Like most Internet recruiting analysts, Lichtenfels carries the stresses of two jobs within one: As a journalist, he hopes to break all news stories about college commitments in the East and Midwest. As an analyst, he needs to evaluate and rank as many as 10,000 players. To fulfill both of those roles on signing day of last year, Lichtenfels wrote 14 stories for Scout and gave interviews to 12 radio stations and 43 newspapers.
Lichtenfels prides himself on building firm relationships with players. He travels to evaluate prospects at 25 football camps and combines each year and, once there, he often coaches the lineman. The first time he calls each teenager, he asks to speak with a parent to introduce himself. He communicates with prospects late at night through instant messages and myspace.com, trading suggestions about rap music. Marvin Austin, a defensive lineman from Ballou High School, called Lichtenfels early on Christmas morning to wish him a happy holiday.
Lichtenfels's cellular plan allows for free nights and weekends, plus 4,000 daytime minutes each month. He regularly exceeds that limit. When he was hospitalized for a week last year with a pulmonary embolism -- a combination of stress and his sedentary lifestyle, doctors said -- Lichtenfels asked Shannon to make recruiting calls for him. Then, two days after his release, Lichtenfels ignored doctors' orders and left town for a nine-day work trip.
Sometimes, while at work in his office, Lichtenfels overhears his 4- and 7-year-old sons in the living room, playing a game they call "Daddy." The boys jabber into fake telephones and pounded away on detached keyboards.
"I'd like to disconnect from it sometimes, maybe turn my phone off when I'm out to dinner with my wife, but I'm terrified I'd miss something," Lichtenfels said. "You can't take a vacation. You can't block it out. Recruiting keeps going for 24 hours a day, every day of the year. So that's what I've got to do, too."
His home town taught Lichtenfels to become a workaholic. Robinson and its 120 houses have persisted through the Johnstown flood of 1977 and a mass murder at a local bar in 2002. With a downtown consisting of a post office and a general store, Robinson sits on the banks of the Conemaugh River, five miles from the nearest regularly plowed road. Most of its men work in nearby coal mines and steel mills. Lichtenfels owns a house two blocks away from his childhood home. He wooed his wife while they were students at the same local high school where Lichtenfels's parents met.
Lichtenfels's father, Denny, worked at a local steel mill as an electrician for 35 years. He asked for his first sick day in 2003, because his stomach ached. A doctor diagnosed pancreatic cancer that afternoon. Nine weeks later, Lichtenfels buried his father dressed in his favorite Steelers jersey.
Lichtenfels always understood hard work, but never knew what to work for. He started at the steel mill when he was 16. He worked part-time as a local disc jockey. He counseled youth sex offenders. He trained hounds to hunt raccoons in the Pennsylvania woods and raised a champion dog.
"I always wanted to be the best at everything, but I never had a passion for any of it," Lichtenfels said. "If you told me, three years ago, that I'd be doing what I am right now? I would have laughed. I'd have said, 'That's too good to be true.'
"I mean, just think about it: Good ol' Big Bob, from Robinson, making a living in football. It sounds weird to say it, but it almost feels like it's a calling."